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A town justice Thursday dismissed a criminal prosecution against the mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., who married gay couples without marriage licenses, saying a state law banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. The ruling from New Paltz Town Justice Jonathan D. Katz marked the first time a New York court has found that the marriage law violates the rights of gay couples. The judge’s opinion does not, however, have the effect of invalidating the statute or giving gay couples an immediate opportunity to wed. “I am familiar with the arguments raised in the cases from other states addressing this issue and I understand the historical, cultural and religious opposition to same-sex marriage, but find that none of the reasons stated in opposition to same-sex marriage is paramount to the equal protection guarantees enshrined in the state and federal constitutions,” Katz wrote in People v. West, 04030054. Katz’s ruling comes in the same week as another ruling in a civil case involving New Paltz Mayor Jason West, who married numerous couples in February even though the New Paltz town clerk would not issue them marriage licenses. In the earlier civil court ruling, County Supreme Court Justice E. Michael Kavanagh said West could not perform marriages without valid licenses and enjoined him from conducting such marriages in the future. Kavanagh did not address the constitutionality of the gay marriage ban. Katz, who practices law in New Paltz and is one of two part-time town justices, said the equal protection issue raised by the ban invalidated the statute and, by extension, the misdemeanor prosecution against West. “Even if the financial issues could be addressed in some comprehensive way short of allowing same-sex partners to marry, there would still be no emotional substitute for marriage,” Katz wrote. FIRST STEP TOWARD LEGAL GAY MARRIAGE E. Joshua Rosenkranz of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, which represents West, said the ruling was the first step toward legal gay marriage in New York. “If history is any guide, this is the beginning of an unstoppable trend in New York,” Rosenkranz said. Donald A. Williams, the Ulster County District Attorney, said his office would appeal the ruling. “Our position was that the mayor cannot defend an independent and willing unlawful act by shielding himself with the rights of others,” Williams said. “This prosecution is not about the legality or constitutionality of same-sex marriage; it is about a public official willfully violating the law.” Williams noted the opinion of Justice Kavanagh, who said a mayor could not disregard a law just because he believed it was unconstitutional. Juanita Scarlett, a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, said the office is reviewing the decision and declined further comment. In March, Spitzer released a legal memo that found gay couples do not have the right to marry under New York’s Domestic Relations Law. But the attorney general acknowledged that the law raised constitutional issues that would ultimately be decided in the courts. Justice Katz asked Spitzer’s office to defend the law as part of West’s prosecution, but the attorney general declined to do so. The judge noted that Williams’ office did not try to defend the constitutionality of the Domestic Relations Law, either, and said this fact had some bearing on his decision. “If the state had a legitimate governmental purpose in preventing same-sex couples from marrying either the chief law enforcement officer of Ulster County or of the State of New York could have taken this opportunity to articulate it,” Justice Katz wrote. Katz was appointed to the Town Court in 1995 and was subsequently elected to office. He was last elected, as a Democrat, in 2001 and will face re-election in 2005. He has lived in New Paltz since 1987. Andrew Kossover, a New Paltz attorney, acted as co-counsel to Rosenkranz.

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